Sunday, January 31, 2010

Okay, so I watched the movie

Well, all you aspiring screenwriters can take comfort: there's still no Donner Party movie. At least, not one that you need to worry about competing with.

As you probably all know, Anacapa Entertainment's new film, The Donner Party, was released on DVD on January 26. I got my copy yesterday and have watched it twice. I don't quite know what to say, but that won't stop me from saying it.

Donner Party fans will notice a certain similarity between the movie and the story of the "Forlorn Hope" snowshoers who set out from the lake camp in December 1846 to seek help. While reference is made to a wagon train stuck in the Sierra Nevada snow, to someone named Hastings who misled them, and to other emigrants camped elsewhere named Donner and "Kessyberg," the story centers on characters named Foster, Eddy, Graves, Fosdick, Stanton, etc., who set out on snowshoes to California to get help; some people die and are cannibalized. Sound familiar? Good. Because not much else will.

I could go on at length about all the discrepancies, but it would take ages and I don't want to rag on the producers too much. I've talked to enough screenwriters over the years to know how hard the Donner story would be to capture on film: large cast; quantities of animals; wagons; costumes; number of sets; varied terrain (prairie, desert, mountain); varied weather conditions (thunder, searing heat, snow); length and complexity of the story; and so on. Obviously, some liberties have to be taken and events telescoped.

What I don't get, however, is the necessity to butcher the plot. Why? Why not stick closer to the truth? Why, for instance, make Foster the rich fop and Eddy his teamster? Why make up an imaginary cache of provisions left along the trail? The truth just isn't dramatic enough? While he lay dying, Franklin Ward Graves besought his daughters to use his body for food, but apparently that's far too tame. This Mr. Graves (the least gaunt person in the flick) kills himself so his daughters -- his clean, well-kempt, full-fleshed daughters -- will have something to eat.

This leads me to my major beef with the movie: there's no real desperation, no real suffering. There's no cabin full of thin, crying children, no reference to mothers whose milk has dried up from starvation watching helpless as their babies die a slow, agonizing death -- no sense of the real fear that motivated the snowshoers.

Nor of their subsequent trials. There's no Christmas blizzard huddled under blankets, no raving Patrick Dolan, no Sarah Foster comforting her dying little brother in her lap, no powder horn blowing up or axe getting lost. There's some violence but little enough gore for a movie about cannibalism: somebody dies or is killed, then there's a scene of people eating -- which was actually a pretty good way to handle it, IMO. But there's little sense of their growing weakness, the toll the journey has taken on them:

""[Eddy] staggered like a drunken man; and when he came to a fallen tree, though no more than a foot high, he had to stoop down, put his hands upon it, and get over it by a sort of rolling motion. They were under the necessity of sitting down to rest about every quarter of a mile. The slightest thing caused them to stumble and fall. They were almost reduced to the helplessness of little children in their first essays to walk. The women would fall and weep like infants, and then rise and totter along again." -- J. Quinn Thornton, Oregon and California in 1848, II, 151.

This just doesn't come across in the movie.

When the real Forlorn Hope finally reached the settlement, they were skeletal and nearly naked because their clothes had fallen apart; their trail was marked by blood from their frostbitten feet. In Anacapa's parody, the Forlorn Hope was a bunch of well-fed, spiffily dressed day trippers who offed one another the first time their tummies rumbled. With no depiction of their physical and mental deterioration, they come across as depraved, not desperate.

The film does get a few things right. For instance, the pioneers' use of "Mr." and "Mrs." instead of first names, and the emigrants eying each other around the campfire. I also liked the version of "Barbara Allen" sung during the closing credits. On the whole, however, it's a shame for the producers, the viewers, and the memory of the Donner Party that the film didn't turn out better.

Monday, January 11, 2010

More gore

Well, matters move apace! Anybody willing to risk driving up into the Sierra in the dead of winter can attend a special screening of Anacapa Entertainment's new flick, The Donner Party, at the Sugar Bowl's Judah Lodge this weekend. It's showing at 7:00 P.M. on Sunday, January 17, $10 at the door. Director T.J. Martin and several cast members will be there, and there'll be a Q-and-A session after the showing. If anybody reading this goes, let the rest of us know what you think.

Here's website with a photo gallery of stills and a different trailer showing a bizarre plot twist:

The more I see of this movie, the less I like it. Anybody else have a problem with it, or is it just me?

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I've been slaving away at Donnerpedia and it's getting closer to being ready for prime time -- no launch date in sight, though -- and in reviewing New Light and all the information I've collected over the years, I have to say it's my readers who have helped me the most.

Oh, sure, I've pestered my share of historians, researchers, librarians, archivists, and sundry other victims over the years, and they've all been helpful, some of them exceptionally so -- Will Bagley, for instance, has been putting up with me since about 1993.

But really, as a group, it's been readers who have helped the most, often in unexpected ways. Readers have supplied me with information and photos, blown my mind with new ideas and insights, asked terrific questions, pointed out errors, inconsistencies, and typos, given me praise and encouragement, and generally kept me going. Oh, sure, there's an occasional crank, jerk, or weirdo, but on the whole it's been good.

I just wish I could remember everyone. I've moved into new computers twice and had a couple of hard drive crashes, so I've lost a lot of the e-mail I'd hoarded over the years. However, a few people stand out. Jo Ann Schmidt, for instance, is the Donner Genealogy Queen, as far as I'm concerned, and then there's Gabrielle Burton, and Marilyn Acuff, and Anne Trussell, and then there are all the descendants, Donner Party buffs, historians, students, novelists, dog handlers, genealogists, reporters, documentarians...

I could go on. However, the one person I really want to thank is Ken Dunn. He's corresponded with me for years, listened to me whine and wonder and rhapsodize, answered questions, asked questions, helped with research, alerted me to news, and much, much more. Most of all, he's a bouncer -- not a chucker-out, an idea bouncer. Ken knows his stuff when it comes to the Donner Party, and when I need to really thrash something out, I write to Ken. Answering questions all the time gets a bit wearing, so it's a relief to have somebody knowledgeable to talk to. Thanks, guy.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

And we have a winner!

Last night as I went to bed after posting my quiz, I thought, "Dumb idea-- nobody's going to answer." This morning I get up and not only is there an answer but a winner. Eric Baumgartner identified the three errors in the blurb describing the new Donner Party movie :

Based on the harrowing true story, The Donner Party picks up after William Hastings steers a group, nicknamed "Forlorn Hope," off course by promising a shorter route to California through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Eric posted to the comments section:

(1) Hastings' first name was Lansford, not William.
(2) The group that he led astray was not the "Forlorn Hope," but the Donner Party, of course.
(3) Hastings steered them to a shortcut through the Wasatch and across the Utah salt desert.

Absolutely correct! So, Eric, if you'll e-mail me (there's a link at New Light on the Donner Party) and send me your address, I'll mail you your postcard.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

New Donner Party film clip

Check out this newly available clip from the film The Donner Party. Franklin Ward Graves goes bugeye crazy and takes his son-in-law down. And pipe the snowshoes -- guess the Forlorn Hope did their outfitting at Cabela's. "We don't need no stinkin' oxbows..."


Identify three errors in the following blurb:

Based on the harrowing true story, The Donner Party picks up after William Hastings steers a group, nicknamed "Forlorn Hope," off course by promising a shorter route to California through the Sierra Nevada Mountains."
First one to answer correctly gets a vintage postcard with a Donner Party theme.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy 2010!

It looks like 2010 will start off with a bang for Donner Party buffs -- the long-awaited
movie is scheduled to be released on DVD on January 26. You can pre-order a copy at

A lot of people have written me asking about this film, but I've had a very busy fall so haven't tried to keep up with it. Here's what I know, with some opinions thrown in:

This film, the first production of Anacapa Entertainment, started out with the title The Forlorn. It's about the "Forlorn Hope," a party of 15 emigrants who set out from the Donner Party camps in December 1846 on snowshoes to seek help for the stranded wagon train.

The film premiered at the Austin Film Festival in October, with two results: the producers decided against a theatrical release but to send it straight to DVD, and they changed the title to The Donner Party.

I can't say much about the straight-to-DVD decision; it strikes me as unfortunate and must have been a disappointment to the producers, but that's not my call. I do wish, however, they hadn't changed the title. The Forlorn is much more evocative, to say nothing of accurate, while The Donner Party is trite, inaccurate (it's not about the Donner Party, only a fraction of it), and already taken (by Ric Burns' documentary, to say nothing of myriad books and articles).

However, the website bills the movie as "a true story of survival," which I take exception to. It changes the facts, the cast of characters, their names, their relationships with one another (it has Eddy as Foster's teamster, for instance), their motivations, leaves out a lot of details, and presents the "desperate" emigrants as well-fed, well-dressed urbanites who step out of a bandbox to tramp through the mountains.

Of course, the foregoing criticism is unfair because I haven't seen the movie yet and I don't give a rat's about much besides historical accuracy. The film may have all sorts of redeeming features that capture the drama of the Forlorn Hope despite the historical deficits. I hope so, and I'm looking forward to finding out.

Some links:

Preview -- (There's also a clip on the official website but I can't get it to load no matter what browser I use, so I'm including this one; it may or may not be the same.)
Reviews from the Austin Film Festival -- Click on the "Reviews" tab to read all of them.